Saturday, November 24, 2007
For the past two months, Mandy and I have seen, touched, heard, smelled, laughed, cried and even pooped the molecules of life in the slums of Nairobi. At times, we have found ourselves building an immunity to the beauty and affliction while other moments provoke the inevitable gulping contraction of the throat. There are many estimates out there on how many people live in the 170 slums of Nairobi, the most common exceeding 2,000,000. We have come to wonder where all of these people come from, the stories that frame their existence and the journeys that they have embarked on.
This week, I had an opportunity to join a group of people a group from Seattle through World Concern (a development non-profit out of Seattle who is doing some great work www.worldconcern.org) for a visit to Narok, a Maasai area in southwest Kenya. It was here that I was confronted with the realities of many of the people living in rural villages throughout Kenya, the adjustment that they must face when journeying to a city of 4 million and the beautiful people and place that they temporarily (or perhaps forever) abandon. Life outside of the most developed city in East Africa is different to say the least. My first day in Narok brought me back to September 7, when we landed at Nairobi's airport. With little confidence in language, a paralyzing mindset to be culturally sensitive while attempting to manage my senses and the life of the Maasai took its toll.
Perhaps the picture can best be painted through the story of a man named Peter.
Peter grew up in traditional Maasai culture. No electricity, no water, one father, many mothers, hundreds of cows and goats, no education, perplexity at the sight of a car and calloused feet from his miles explored each day. His mother was the first wife, feeling robbed of sharing her family and resources with others. Maa was the language of choice in and among his people while his land was similar to the most remote places of Nevada, New Mexico and Utah as his people were confined to barren areas by the colonizers. (sound familiar?) I hate to use the word primitive as it implies that society has advanced through industrialization and technology, (What has it advanced toward?) but it is the only word in my mind to adequately describe the live of rural villagers in Kenya.
Imagine life without plastic, with life possessions on one shelf and under the cow hide bed, being trapped in a carbon monoxide dungeon every day with a cooking fire inside of a windowless hut and never really seeing or needing access to money.
At the age of 12, Peter was told by his father to take over the foraging goats on a graze in quest of food and water. These journeys are ongoing, spanning across the region and often led solo or with a pair of Maasai boys. Days or perhaps weeks into his journey, he did what most 12 year olds would do, fell asleep and lost the herd of goats. Upon waking up, they were nowhere to be found. Even though he could see miles across the desert landscape, his goats were gone. He returned home to tell his father of his careless mistake. Needless to say, his father was incredibly upset.
Ironically, a few weeks later, the police came to the village and mentioned that there were a few openings in a boarding school near Nairobi. Convinced that his son was a shame to the tribe, Peter's father sent his son with the police with few reservations. This was the beginning of Peter's educational journey through primary school, secondary school and eventually university. Unfortunately, Peter's siblings were strong herdsman, warriors and sought-out girls and women bound for marriage and never had the opportunity to be punished by being sent to school.
I am not sure how the next steps panned out in Peter's life, but know that he is now back in his community, eventually accepted by his family and tribe and working with orphans and vulnerable children in rural areas. I was most intrigued by what the car ride must have been like for him as he entered into Nairobi for the first time, seeing multilevel buildings, at abundance of produce at stands lining the streets, traffic jams, brick walls around homes, watchman, restaurants and car alarms.
It is no wonder that many people end up in the slums. While I realize that this is not the path of a good chunk of the 2,000,000 people living in nearly inhumane conditions, at some point in time, families moved to the city in search for a better life. Life better than Kibera, Mathare, Kawangware and Lunga Lunga. Perhaps there is comfort in being surrounded by those who have experienced the same contrast, by those who have lost their goats and by those who were punished by a trip to the city.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Just want to wish you all a WONDERFUL Thanksgiving! We hope that is a time of being surrounded by loved ones and allowing you to ponder the many blessings in your lives. We have thought of all of you today and are so thankful to be surrounded from 'afar' :)
It is hard for us to believe that the holiday season is officially here, as it was warm and sunny this afternoon here.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
When the service finally completed, they asked for the first timers to move to the back to be welcomed. I should have listened to the inner voice saying, 'now is your chance to escape...' but that would be rude, so I headed to the back, unaware of the trauma I was about to encounter. Our group of newcomers was split into several smaller groups and I was sent with the man with a mission, Pastor Lee. Pastor Lee is a 50+ year old Asian man with a hearing problem, broken English, and the eagerness to save souls. What was meant to be at the most a thirty minute, 'welcome to our church' schpeel, turned into a very harmful encounter with the Christian faith. Pastor Lee began by learning our names, of which I'm sure he doesn't remember, and then proceeded with his “mission” of bringing us to Jesus without any further inquiry into what we believed and why we were in Kenya, and it still wasn't enough to explain to him that we believe in Jesus. He diligently continued on taking us through many familiar scriptures of the Bible...the Roman Road, and the fall of man, etc... exerting his beliefs unto us like a criminal who can overpower his victims, refusing to read the obvious cues that he was offending us. Oh the anger and hurt that was welling up within me as he continued on and on, often times refusing us the opportunity to speak because 'he wasn't done yet.' To disagree with what he was saying would only lead to further abuse, so in time I simply succumb to the despair I felt and stopped fighting it.
What could have been a wonderful and engaging conversation quickly turned sour and ended in a direct abuse of power. To think that this may be a person's first experience with Christianity nearly brought tears to my eyes in the midst of him talking to us. Without any attempt to build even a casual relationship, this man forced us into a conversation that we were obviously resistant to having. Not to mention the fact that we expressed our belief in Christ from the very beginning.
An hour after the conversation began, he was still pursuing us and even had the nerve to express interest in seeing us again, which would be like an attacker asking his victim out to coffee after stripping away their dignity. With the tiny amount of strength (and yet restraint) we had left in us, we politely stood up, thanked him, and walked away. He followed, requesting our contact, and I ignored him. I have never felt so rude in my life, and yet I wish I would have walked away much sooner.
I felt demoralized spiritually on Sunday. The man may have had good and honest intentions, but I walked away deeply paining for people who have had similar encounters.
An invitation into the Christian faith should NEVER feel like this. There is no “3 step formula” that opens the eyes of people to see Jesus, it is His doing within our hearts. To think that we as humans have the ability to convince people into the faith is a disgrace. I apologize for the graphic metaphor, yet I can't think of a better way to explain the experience, which only reinforced to me the utmost importance of building relationships with people and sharing your faith out of love, not a formula.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Four hours later, I returned home hungry and exhausted.
Four hours of interpreting pieces of Swahili, watching those around me, deciphering scripture, explaining my presence, singing and day dreaming. It made me think a great deal about the church (or any other social structure for that matter) and what it means to enter in for the first time. While familiarity allows us to relax and be comfortable, entering unknown territories has the opposite effect. I was literally exhausted by the end of it all. It made me think about what it takes to practice inclusion, to create a gracious space where all are not only welcome, but comfortable to be who they are. I thought of the international students at PLU, the visitors that walked into Trinity for the first time or even the first day on a job.
What do you do to create an environment that allows one to be himself? When do I think about the needs of the outsider-the individual whose first language, culture and customs are different than the norm?
An hour later, a taxi picked us up and took us to a field where we play ultimate frisbee every week. The grass is green, the players are white, the language is English and on the field, people are who they are. Two and a half hours of running around felt like a nap compared to the morning. I was in my element...well I should note that it is an element that is quite new. As of six weeks ago, I had never played ultimate frisbee and felt the pressure of stepping into the unknown. I wasn't an outsider this time around, nor did I feel the need to pick up on everything that was going on around me, but instead-just to be present.
The contrasts of these two parts of my day made me think a great deal about “diversity”. For a split second, it made me question some of my previous thoughts on inclusion. It made me wonder if diversity is a term that people strive for to be politically correct. Maybe it is OK to have black communities, white communities, schools and churches. What is wrong with me not wanting to be exhausted by a church service by making it “diverse”? What is wrong with me feeling more comfortable around the UN, USAID, and embassy workers on a field than those speaking fluent Swahili?
Peeling back one more layer, I see a few flaws in my theory:
1.Diversity is not just about sitting together, but about understanding one another. I think that is why my Sunday experience was so tiring-I have a lot to learn in order to understand the people of Kibera. Understanding people is no different than understanding any other complex subject. It takes time, work, energy, failure and constant attention.
2.I have to be extremely careful with what is really at stake with diversity. I get sick of the term because it tends to be a light and fluffy idealistic word for inclusion when its actual roots are formed in oppression and injustice. Is it possible that my discomfort is actually result of dealing with the past and the present, the forms of injustice and oppression that have occurred and continue to occur? That is an exhausting thought in itself. I can't just dodge it all together.
3.What if I never stepped foot in a church that made me uncomfortable? What if I never took any college courses that challenged me? What if I never took the time to hear the story whose life is drastically different from my own? Who would I be? Who would they be? What if everyone took this approach? What would our world look like?
The night ended with a tasty sandwich and playing cards with friends. It took me to a place that was comfortable, allowing me into a space where I could make sense of my day, my desire for comfort, my contributions to the whole diversity debate and what it means to be a white, male in the streets of Nairobi...once again-I am tired.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
A few days ago, one of the leaders in the CTM network came over for a meeting. We strayed heavily from our agenda and I showed him an article about his community that someone had sent me. He read it, felt that it was very accurate and asked if I had any photos of my family on the computer.
One thing led to another and I showed him photos from the last two years of my life. It never dawned on me until then how difficult it is to tell an accurate story with photos across cultural barriers. Think of the things that we take pictures of and how this might be interpreted by others. It forced me to think hard about the story that my photo album tells and how inaccurate (or maybe accurate) it might be perceived by another. Here are a few examples that required some serious explanation:
Backpacking with my dad and brother in Colorado: “You mean to tell me that you flew on a plane to a different state (country in many people's context) to walk for 4 days and stay in a tent when you have a nice home that you can stay in?”
A “decorated” car after our wedding: “People put paint on your car, fill it with balloons and tie cans to it...on your wedding day and you aren't supposed to get mad?”
Ugly Christmas sweater competition at work: “You go out and buy the ugliest sweater that you can in order to beat out your coworkers? Will you wear it again? Wouldn't you rather wear your other clothes...like the shirt that you have on-that one looks much better.”
Tubing behind the boat in the Puget Sound: “What is the boat for? Do you use it to get places? Why do some people ride on a tube? Is there not enough room for them in the boat?”
On the magnitude of wedding photos: “What are you going to do with thousands of wedding pictures? Do you print them? Then what? Why do you smash cake on Mandy's face when you are wearing nice clothes. Did she get mad at you?”
On the entire collection: “Are these all from you country?” Oceans, lakes, mountains, sand dunes, cities, flowers, fall leaves-not something that people are used to seeing every day.
My folks house in Michigan: “Where are the other houses? Do people pay to visit? Does anyone stay in the covered area in the front? (the porch)”
It was an interesting process. One that challenged me, made me laugh and made me somewhat embarrassed to know that many of the people that I interact with here would not be able to identify with many of the experiences that have made me who I am.
Friday, November 2, 2007
I came across this the other day on Africa Online when doing some research on one of the communities that we are working in. It is well written and inline with so many of the feelings that we have been experiencing...
On a quick note, we are doing well. We had a great week and a lot of cool stuff is going on. A few of the highlights that we will ellobrate more on include...Mandy getting a job, moving forward in Mathare-one of the neglected slums of Nairobi and gearing up for some cool stuff happening in February!
Give a man a fish he feeds for a day, teach the man to fish and he feeds for a lifetime. The most complex problems in a society can be sometimes be solved by simple ideas and concepts based in old proverbs. It is time we realized that the solution to poverty is not handouts in whatever form they may come, but sustainable long-term solutions that benefit all Kenyans equally. If those in power and those who have the responsibility to vote would take heed to these wise words, the poverty problem would not be what it is today.
The economy may be on the increase and several sectors resuscitated, however the reality is; although the number of those living in areas like Runda and other wealthy suburbs is on the increase, so are those living in Kibera, Mathare Kangemi and other sprawling slums. Even with the increase in fuel prices, it seems that more and more Kenyans are able to afford cars despite the limited infrastructure as is seen with Hummers and other luxurious cars that litter the Nairobi roads during rush hour.
It would be my biggest recommendation for all Kenyans to walk through areas like Kibera and Mathare; I am not talking about slum tourism where their lifestyle is exploited at their expense. What I wish is a simple walk, a mile perhaps in their shoes. Imagine living with millions of other people in approximately 3 sq km, where a trip to the kiosk or bus stop requires you to develop superior navigation of open sewers where faeces and waste form part of the path. Imagine waking up cold, or wet, everyday in your house built of mabati and mud, only to give birth at home because basic hospital services are but a myth. This is how a great majority of us live, and it is not because they are lazy or not like you. It is time we realized that poverty is our problem, and affects us all. How can we expect a safer society when so many live in such deplorable conditions that, crime becomes a lucrative business? How can we expect the economy to grow when such a small population controls so much?
Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Resource distribution is favorable to the few in power, where the fight for power is entirely among the elite, who wants to safeguard their economic prosperity. It is undeniable that there is money in this beautiful country, what one must ask is why it not trickles to all levels of society. The economy may have improved for you, you make more money than you did 5 years ago, but yet, you still pay your gardener and watchman the same amount you did then. If your basic necessities amounts to more than you pay your unskilled worker, how is he or she supposed to survive with so little?
The poverty problem cannot be successfully addressed without addressing rural poverty, which accounts for the majority of poor who live on $2 or less a day. If more financial investment and development focussed on rural areas, less people would be inclined to leave their farms and shags to move to the city in search of a better life.
Once again elections roll around and we hear the same rhetoric on job creation and poverty alleviation, yet 5 years down the line although some things may have changed, I am yet to hear of long-term solutions that stand a chance of creating change. The middle class is a mere blip on the radar while the gap between the extremely poor and economic elite is vast almost to be measured on the same scale as space.
When I asks around the common consensus is poor governance is to blame for our pink elephant. Our political history created this complex poverty vortex, where the way out seems almost impossible. What is clear then, is we are the architects to our own demise, we choose our leaders and therefore we choose our fate. In this election I would urge everyone to listen to the issues, to the proposed solutions, and to whom these solutions will indeed benefit. When you vote, think about the woman who sells tomatoes on the side of the road, the man who is employed as your guard or gardener but is forced to live in a shack to make ends meet, the graduate who is forced to drive the City Hoppa bus; these people are the majority, and are affected most by the choices we all make.